26 June 2009

They Don't Really Care About Us

Since the media seems fixated on every second of every move made surrounding Michael Jackson's death, Iranian student protestors have latched on to one of his songs: 'They Don't Care About Us (The Prison Version).'  The music video shows some very interesting parallels.

Meanwhile, press freedoms are increasingly restricted.  A protest of new limitations placed on media and further arrests of journalists had been scheduled for Thursday, July 2nd, but has been cancelled due to a new 'national security system order.'  The Iranian Journalists Information Secretary issued the following statement: 'This meeting agenda was to support members of the journalist guild who a big number of them now are unemployed because of press closure and seizure and some of them were arrested. Therefore, Although Iran Journalists Union knows that they have the legal right to hold this meeting but to protect journalists security in the current situation, informs all members that meeting is canceled. Iran journalists guild forum announces that judiciary specially general and revolutionary courts,should reconsidering their behaviors to press and journalists companions faster and remove recent media restrictions according to the clear liberties in constitution and press law and also release all arrested journalists immediately.'

On the international front, Iran has unilaterally 'disqualified' the EU from participating in talks on Iran's nuclear program.  The EU may retaliate by expelling Iranian diplomats and recalling their own.  The BBC reports: 'Maj Gen Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran's chief of staff, accused the EU of "interference" in riots which followed June's disputed presidential elections.'  Even President Obama seems to be slowly concluding that dialogue with Iran may 'suffer' if the crackdown continues.

Videos taken by student protestors continue to come out including some of those posted here.

A student with whom I am in touch states that today (July 1) the Far News Agency in Persian reported that the doctor who witnessed the murder of Neda Soltan and tried to help her will be prosecuted.: 'Speaking to a gathering of reporters, General Esma'il Ahmadi-Moqaddam added: Arash Hejazi is being prosecuted by the Ministry of Intelligence and Interpol forces. He stressed: The murder of Neda Aqa-Soltan is a scenario which has no links to Tehran's riots. Arash Hejazi, the doctor who was present at Neda Aqa-Soltan's murder scene, has held certain sensational interviews with foreign media on this murder case after departing the country.'

25 June 2009

Ahmadinejad Demands an Apology from Obama

'Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lashed out at President Obama on Thursday, warning him against "interfering" in Iranian affairs and demanding an apology for criticism of a government crackdown on demonstrators protesting alleged electoral fraud.'

Think he'll get one?

Ahmadineajd elaborated on why he thinks Obama owes an apology:

'"Why do you speak so impolitely with this great nation?" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a petrochemical complex's inauguration ceremony in south Iran on Thursday. "I hope you will avoid interfering in Iran's affairs," he added in the speech broadcast on Iranian state television.
The declared winner of his country's dispute election implied that Obama, being a new president, would still gather "experiences", and urged him to "correct himself".'

Please, stop throwing things at your computer screen.

Mousavi continues to defy the government, although his whereabouts are not verified.  He continues (or someone does) to post defiance on his website.  'Iran protest leader Mir Hossein Mousavi says he holds those behind alleged "rigged" elections responsible for bloodshed during recent protests. In a defiant statement on his website, he called for future protests to be in a way which would not "create tension." He complained of "complete" restrictions on his access to people and a crackdown on his media group. A BBC correspondent in Tehran says the statement is a direct challenge to Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.'

Apparently at least some of the demonstrators continue to battle on as well.  'Eyewitness reports say there have been clashes near the parliament building in the capital Tehran, in the streets around Baharestan Square. Severe reporting restrictions in Iran mean the BBC cannot verify the reports. The new protests came hours after Iran's supreme leader said he would "not yield" over the election result. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again said the result would stand, despite days of protests in which at least 17 people are reported to have died.'

24 June 2009

UPDATE: Betrayal

UPDATE 4: One woman's testimony from Baharestan Square yesterday:

UPDATE 3: Posting corrections. If you were puzzled by the fact that several paragraphs jumped around in the main post, or that font mysteriously changed, I apologize.  I'm not sure what happened with all of that, but it should be corrected now.

UPDATE 2: Neda Soltana's family has been forced to cancel her funeral and mourning displays, and have now been forced out of their home.

UPDATE 1: The invitation has (finally) been rescinded.

 On June 3 of this year, the Institute for Science and  International Security, (ISIS) published on its website Nuclear Iran published the following:  'The hottest ticket in many a capital city is an invitation to the U.S. embassy’s July 4 picnic. This year, as the NYT reported yesterday, the State Department has instructed all embassies and consulates that “they may invite representatives from the government of Iran” to their Independence Day celebrations. These are typically casual affairs featuring traditional American picnic food--burgers, hot dogs, ice cream and informal mingling. So long as the meat is halal, Iranian guests should feel right at home.'   This was  Real Politik at its best.  Voice of America followed up with a  report, as did the Telegraph, nicknaming it 'hot dog diplomacy.'  'Robert Wood, a State Department spokesman, said a cable went out to US diplomatic missions last week advising that Iranian diplomats "may be invited" to their July 4 receptions. "We review these types of invitations every year, and a decision was made this year to invite officials from Iran," Mr Wood said. "This is very much in line with our policy of trying to engage the Iranian government," he said.'

Today, the TimesOnline (UK) published reports of what looks to be the final crushing of the Iranian protest movement, and it was brutal and ugly.

'It was a far cry from the massive demonstrations of last week. Today, just a few hundred protesters converged on Baharestan Square, opposite the Iranian Parliament, and they were brutally repulsed. It was an exercise in courageous futility, not a contest. Thousands of riot police and militiamen flooded the area. They used teargas, batons and overwhelming force. Helicopters hovered overhead. Nobody was allowed to stop or to gather, let alone exercise their constitutional right to protest. ... Twitter was flooded with lurid messages. “They pull away the dead — like factory — no human can do this,” said one. “They catch people with mobile — so many killed today — so many injured,” said another. “In Baharestan we saw militia with axe chopping ppl like meat — blood everywhere,” said a third. ... All that can be said for certain is the regime has finally recaptured the streets through strength of numbers and the unrestrained use of violence. Thirty years after the Iranian revolution it no longer rules with consent, but with military might, and it is cracking down with all means at its disposal. “Neither the system nor the people will give in to pressures at any price,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, declared on state-controlled television today. “I will insist on implementation of the law.” Saeed Mortazavi, an Iranian prosecutor notorious for his abuse of prisoners, has been put in charge of arresting and investigating dissidents. Mr Mortazavi has a long record of involvement in cases of torture, illegal detention and extracting false confessions, Human Rights Watch said. “The leading role of Saeed Mortazavi in the cracksdown of Tehran should set off alarm bells,” it said.'

In a separate report, TimesOnline discussed the background of Saeed Mortazavi: 'Relatives of several detained protesters have confirmed that the interrogation of prisoners is now being headed by Saaed Mortazavi, a figure known in Iran as “the butcher of the press”. He gained notoriety for his role in the death of a Canadian-Iranian photographer who was tortured, beaten and raped during her detention in 2003. ... Mr Mortazavi has also led a crackdown in Tehran that has seen women arrested for wearing supposedly immodest clothing. Earlier this year he oversaw the arrest and trial of Roxana Saberi, the American-Iranian journalist sentenced to eight years for spying, and his name has appeared on the arrest warrants of prominent reformists rounded up since the unrest started, such as Saeed Hajarian, a close aide of Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former President. With more than 600 people now having been arrested, including dozens of journalists, many fear the worst.'

As well they should.  According to the TimesOnline (and what I and others are hearing from Iranians) in an interview with a student in hiding, the student protestors are begging for moral and other assistance from the West.  In particular, they long to know that America supports them and will put pressure on Iran.  How far that pressure can or should go is something of an unknown right now.  But it is shameful to the country that beckons the world to freedom and democracy that we are evidencing such reluctance to even modestly complain about the brutality of a regime which makes claims to leadership and democracy.

'"But what do they do about it in the West? Some of the politicians behave as if nothing special has happened. One says the nuclear negotiation is the priority and another one politely asks the masters to deal better with the people. And some apologists pretend to speak on behalf of the people of Iran and ask the Western governments not to get involved in the condemnation of killings, calling it “interference.” ... Every day I hear of friends being taken away. They vanish without trace. I have no knowledge of what they are going through, for they have cut off the phones in the prisons. I fear a huge bloodbath is on the way and the world better react now, as soon as possible, before it is too late. Experience has shown us that if you appease these demons they will become ever more outrageous but if you stand up to them firmly, they will draw back like cowards. The West must show a reaction to the human rights abuses that are taking place here; otherwise the people of Iran will lose all faith in the claims of the West that they truly respect human rights."'

This same kind of plea was evidenced in the question put to President Obama at yesterday's press conference by Nico Pitney from the Huffington Post.  We now know that this was a planted question, and that there was a second planted questioner at the press conference.  The HufPo question turned out to be so on target, and disquieting to the president however, that he may abandon this idea is the future.

'THE PRESIDENT: "Since we're on Iran, I know Nico Pitney is here from Huffington Post."
Q: "Thank you, Mr. President." 
THE PRESIDENT: "Nico, I know that you, and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran. I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?"
Q: "Yes, I did, I wanted to use this opportunity to ask you a question directly from an Iranian. We solicited questions last night from people who are still courageous enough to be communicating online, and one of them wanted to ask you this: Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of what the demonstrators there are working towards?"
THE PRESIDENT: "Well, look, we didn't have international observers on the ground. We can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country. What we know is that a sizeable percentage of the Iranian people themselves, spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It's not an isolated instance -- a little grumbling here or there. There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election. And so ultimately the most important thing for the Iranian government to consider is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States. And that's why I've been very clear: Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government. What we can do is to say unequivocally that there are sets of international norms and principles about violence, about dealing with peaceful dissent, that spans cultures, spans borders. And what we've been seeing over the Internet and what we've been seeing in news reports violates those norms and violates those principles. I think it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people. We hope they take it."'

How wrong you are, Mr. President, how wrong you are.  Once a government murders, disappears, violently oppresses, tortures, rapes and disenfranchises the majority of its own population, it's too late for them to take a peaceful path.  Hot dog diplomacy is not going to cut it.  Letting these invitations stand is a disgrace to this entire country, and to the brave Iranians who are suffering and dying while you are keeping your cool.  You trample the very notion of fighting for that freedom by doing so.  We don't have to 'meddle' or 'interfere' in Iran's internal politics to express our utter disgust and repulsion at what is happening.  And dis-inviting diplomats to a picnic, who represent such an animalistic regime, isn't the same thing as refusing all diplomatic contact or engagment where our interests are at stake.  But to not even acknowledge extreme displeasure with a regime, and to not use the weight of diplomatic displeasure (as Britain has done), is callous and a betrayal of those fighting for their liberty.  This administration said it wanted to employ more 'soft power,' using diplomatic tools.  Now that it has the opportunity to fully employ those tools, it refuses to do so. That is why cartoons, like the one at the head of this post are appearing on Iranian blogs and Facebook pages.  That is why the question posed by Mr. Pitney was worded as it was.  That is why the student interviewed by the TimesOnline said "Some of the politicians behave as if nothing has happened at all."  Because the one man in the world, who above all others, must stand for freedom and liberty is standing for nothing.

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23 June 2009

A Montage Of Images From Iran

The video is from You Tube.  The rest I'm getting through a friends of a friend of a friend all of whom shall remain nameless.  While your names are not here, never believe that this struggle is forgotten or un-noticed.  Sites for more on-the-ground photos and postings: news.gooya.com, radiozamaneh.com.

Iran's Angel of Freedom

Neda Soltan has now been dubbed Iran's Angel of Freedom.  All now know the story of this beautiful young woman, who was standing on the side of the road with her father and was shot.  For being there, for dressing in a Western fashion, for wanting freedom - no one really knows.  But we can know that she was murdered, and that Iran is now far beyond a protest against voter fraud.  Her death is not wasted, and her life and beliefs are being celebrated and honored in the courage of the protestors.  We should all live and die for causes such as these.

Meanwhile, President Obama has just said that he admires Sen. McCain's beliefs (in the mid-day press conference), but that "... only I am the President."  Very classy, Mr. President, very classy. Did you think we were confused?  He obliquely referred to Ms. Soltan, but only to say that it's unfair that she was shot.  He doesn't yet get the idea that America stands for freedom and democracy, and even if the president (for the safety of the protestors) shouldn't always speak up forcefully, he (or she) should always be clear that our country's soul is most clearly expressed by those fighting for their own freedom.  At best, he's saddened and concerned about the violence, and 'voting irregularities.'  I don't hear any real concern in his words for the freedom of the Iranians, particularly of the women who are standing strong in these protests.

20 June 2009

ABC News: Now and Then

In 1996, Ted Koppel (then the anchor of ABC's Nightline), walked out of the Republican Convention, rightly saying that it had become a staged and media-controlled event. In 2002, ABC made clear that Nightline would no longer be permitted to be a hard-hitting news show, and Koppel left, eventually moving to the BBC, PBS and NPR. While there are certainly many who would disagree with Koppel's positions and coverage of events, it's certainly fair to say that his career has been about reporting and understanding news.

ABC news used to reflect that kind of reporting, but no longer. Now, ABC has cozied all the way up the White House, to the point of 'hosting a health care town hall,' during prime time. Once the news leader, ABC is now the well-loved mistress of the White House.

One wonders what Ted would have to say.

19 June 2009

UPDATE: President Obama Speaks Up


UPDATE 1: For live coverage and active blogging on events as they're reported, go here to Atlas Shrugs.

The House passed a resolution in support of the protesters against the Iran's election results, followed by the Senate. Rep. Ron Paul was the only member of the House to vote against. The vote in the Senate was unanimous.

The Ayatollah's 'sermon' at Friday prayers at Tehran University predictably warned against further protests, saying: '"I want to tell everyone these things must finish. These street actions are being done to put pressure on leaders but we will not bow in front of them."' He further implied that any further protests would lead to bloodshed that would be on the heads of the protest leaders. This morning (Tehran time), the state-controlled media put our further warnings not to gather in protest. While there were protests today, and running battles with the sanctioned militia, crowds were unable (or too cautious) to gather in the numbers seen over the last few days.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former Prime Minister who presided over the dismantling (and executions in some cases) of the former Shah's government after the Revolution, now says that he is willing to be a martyr. He has called for a nationwide strike if he is arrested, sparking speculation that strikes in the oil industry will cause a massive rate hike in the cost of a barrel of oil.

All of this had led President Obama to make yet another statement today, this one more forceful than over the previous week. '"We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights."' While I long to hear the president make a truly forceful statement in support of the protesters, and I'm not convinced that his motives are as described, it's possible that any stronger statements will only be used by the Iranian government to further harm the protesters themselves. This is the opinion of Henry Kissinger.

We'll find out in the next few days how far this will go. Right now, protests have continued into the night, and a tank is now reported to be at Azadi Square. Hot Air has many excellent video and site links to follow further.

18 June 2009

UPDATES: Is CARS a Clunker?

Update 1: Congress finished passing the CARS (Cash for Clunkers) bill today.  

A overly cutely-named bill, the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act (CARS), is moving from the House to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.  The bill was introduced to the House on June 8, passed on the 9th (note, some article refer to passage on the 5th, but the House calendar records it as passing on the 9th), sent to the Senate on the 11th, and entered the Senate calendar on the 11th.  A little fast, no?  A quick look at govtrack.us reveals the following information.

Sponsor: Rep. Betty Sutton [D-OH13]show cosponsors (59)

Text: Summary | Full Text 
Cost: $15 per American over the 2009-2010 period. This is computed from a Congressional Budget Office report, merely by dividing the estimated cost of $4,000,000,000 by the U.S. population. The figure is extracted from the report automatically and may be incorrect. See the report for details.

Status: Introduced Jun 8, 2009 
 Referred to Committee View Committee Assignments 
 Reported by Committee Jun 11, 2009 
 Passed House Jun 9, 2009 
 Voted on in Senate ... 
 Signed by President ... 

This bill has been passed in the House. The bill now goes on to be voted on in the Senate. Keep in mind that debate may be taking place on a companion bill in the Senate, rather than on this particular bill. [Last Updated: Jun 12, 2009 8:41AM] 
Last Action: Jun 11, 2009: Read the second time. Placed on Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders. Calendar No. 74. 

Jon Markman (MSN Money) wrote today:

'The program, which has been approved by the House but still needs to go to the Senate, would provide vouchers of $3,500 to $4,500 to Americans willing to trade in their old gas-guzzling vehicles as part of transactions for new vehicles that consume gasoline at slightly less fearsome rates. ... It's sort of like a store advertising a 15%-off sale, then billing the customer for the cost of the discount at the cash register. It sounds like a great deal until you realize the money doesn't come from outer space. It comes from taxes. It's like socialized medicine, but with mudflaps. The bill is called the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act -- CARS, get it? -- yet the main thing to be recycled would be taxpayers' money. It's a Pinto painted to look like a Ferrari. If [the return to GDP figures are] accurate, those would amount to gigantic swings off the negative-5% GDP growth of the first and second quarters and create a lot of political capital for Democratic lawmakers going into the 2010 re-election season. Perhaps we should rename the program "clunkers for Congress." ... As for the new vehicles, all 25 of the top-selling light vehicles of 2008 would meet the minimum. However, Barclays' analysis indicates Honda would see the greatest benefit because its fleet of fuel-efficient small cars and light trucks would fit the program best, with Toyota Motor (TM, news, msgs) a close second. The cost of the program is expected to hit $4 billion in the first year, and many lawmakers are already balking. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who originally backed the concept, said the latest version "doesn't make much sense" because the fuel savings sought is small compared with the cost. After a junker got turned in, the dealer would be prohibited from selling or using it and would have to hand it over to the government -- so don't expect any premium over the voucher value. The feds would then drive it straight to a metal recycler, which would turn it into soda cans and maybe new fenders. This would create a lot of business for recyclers, though it might depress the price of metal due to a flood of supply.'

Catherine Holahan (also MSN Money) wrote in a separate article:

'For many people, that means a fairly cheap new car. But they're out there. (Here's MSN Autos' look at new rides under $10,000.) With a $4,500 voucher as a down payment and a four-year loan at 7.5%, the payments on a $10,000 car would be about $133. And don't forget, the sales tax on any new car, with a price of up to $49,500, bought between Feb. 17, 2009, and the end of the year is deductible on next year's tax return. Owners of clunkers without the credit or cash to buy would lose out. Not only would their taxes subsidize the bill, but the price of used cars would likely increase because the bill could take hundreds of thousands of them off the road. Parts to fix older cars would become more expensive, too, because the bill would require that engines and transmissions of trade-ins be destroyed and recycled.'

If you want to check out the potential for your clunker, check here or here.

All I can see this bill accomplishing is the accrument of even more debt, with little to no benefit to the environment (the improvement in CAFE standards is token at best), no benefit to the poor, little to no benefit to the US auto industry, and a big handout to the Dems in Congress the Japanese auto industry.  And it's obviously being rushed through to try and fly it under the radar.  Edmunds.com reports:

'Though information from Congress suggests that the program may stimulate anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million new-car purchases, Edmunds.com believes that it will be a struggle to reach 500,000 vehicles, since the bill has become more restrictive in recent iterations . "A program intended to stimulate new car sales should target people in the market for a car, but the program does not," asserted Edmunds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl. "The only people who qualify are those willing to take no more than $4,500 for their current car and immediately buy a new one — quite a narrow profile."'

Yet another piss-poor decision being made on your behalf by your friendly neighborhood Congress and President.  Pretty soon, we'll all be told to turn in our brains for direct programming.

17 June 2009

Return of the Axis of Evil?

Yup, this will stop 'em in their tracks:

'The leaders of South Korea and the United States told North Korea to drop its atomic ambitions and stop threatening the region while media reports on Wednesday said Pyongyang was moving ahead with plans to launch a long-range missile. After a summit with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama said a nuclear-armed North Korea would pose a "grave threat" to the world. He vowed new U.N. sanctions imposed for North Korea's May 25 nuclear test would be strictly enforced.'

The only sanctions we can strictly enforce are our own.  We can do force other nations to abide by the sanctions, much less enforce them.  And there has been ample evidence that North Korea has and will continue to trade nuclear material, including to Iran and Syria. 

'"A U.S. spy satellite spotted a special ICBM transport train moving from the manufacturing plant (near Pyongyang) to the Musudan-ri test site and staying there for a few days before returning," it quoted a government source as saying.'

Sounds familiar, no?  Meanwhile, Secretary Gates has vowed that the US '..."will not accept" a nuclear-armed North Korea as new intelligence data showed that the secretive state was preparing a fresh missile launch, which could take place in two weeks' time. ... In his speech in Singapore, Gates warned that America would hold Pyongyang "fully accountable" for the proliferation of any nuclear material or technology. "The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the US and our allies. And we would hold North Korea fully accountable," Gates said. However, co-ordinating an effective international diplomatic response to North Korea has not been easy. Russia and China have stymied efforts to isolate the country at the UN, preventing a united front to condemn the country's nuclear ambitions.'

Apparently, we will 'not accept' North Korea's belligerence, but neither the EU nor we will do anything but 'dialogue' with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.  This is not to advocate direct action in Iran, but given the Iran has purchased material from North Korea (and has had invited observers at, and received data from, nuclear and missile tests in North Korea), and seems increasingly willing to defy all agreements on the use of that material, 'dialogue' seems a rather anemic response.  In January 2007, the Telegraph noted:

'North Korea and Iran are both countries driven by the bizarre regional ambitions of their rogue leaders, whose global isolation propels them into what appears to be absurd posturing and gratuitous confrontation. But however nihilistic and ultimately futile their actions may appear to Western interests, they represent a strategic confederation of malcontents whose tactics will have to be addressed with resolution of purpose.'

Meanwhile, Iran is dealing with major heartburn over continued protests of its election, about which our president has strangely been struck mute.  We don't yet know if these protests speak against President Obama's desire for peace through diplomacy rather than the promotion of democracy.  Right now Iran has neither peace nor democracy and conciliation hasn't worked to date, despite claims to the contrary.

Whether Ahmadinejad retains his hold on the presidency, neither the EU nor we have much influence in Iran, and we will still have the problem of dealing with the nuclear ambitions of both North Korea and Iran.  It's possible that despite all the [somewhat justified] mockery of the term, we are indeed facing the return of the 'axis of evil.'

Bureaucratic Creep

The LA Times is reporting that President Obama is pushing for sweeping new regulations on just about any industry that deals with finances:

'Reporting from Washington -- The financial regulation plan that President Obama will roll out today will impose stricter and broader government oversight of the nation's banking system -- including tough new requirements on companies whose failure would threaten the economy, and creating new agencies to regulate banks and to protect consumers. The most sweeping overhaul of financial rules since the Great Depression also would grant the Federal Reserve broad new powers to oversee large firms, such as insurance companies, that it does not regulate directly. The Fed would have the authority to seize and dismantle these companies if they are in danger of failing. ... The plan must be approved by Congress. In drafting the measures, Obama administration officials had two key concerns -- moving quickly, before the momentum for reform evaporates, and avoiding withering turf battles with regulators and lawmakers that could derail the effort.'

Wow - am I the only one finding it odd that the president wants the executive branch to 'seize and dismantle' private companies upon an internal finding that the company is 'failing,'
and that the White House drafted this legislation itself?  Has Congress become his personal rubber stamp?  And how does that article (published June 17) with this article publishedthe same day.  The first addresses massive legislative proposals, while the latter states that the Administration is only trying to deal with the immediate situation, and is moving quite cautiously.  They can't both be right.

14 June 2009

Oops - We Guessed Wrong But Don't Worry, We Know What We're Doing

According to the AP: 'Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that "everyone guessed wrong" on the impact of the economic stimulus, but he defended the administration's spending designed to combat rising joblessness. Biden said inaccuracies in unemployment predictions shouldn't undercut the White House's support of the $787 billion economic revival plan that has not met the expectations of President Obama's team. Instead, the vice president urged skeptics to look at teachers who kept their classroom assignments and police officers who kept their beats because of financial assistance from Washington. "The bottom line is that jobs are being created that would not have been there before," Biden said.'

Oh really? I notice two immediate problems with Biden's statements.  First, he conflates jobs created with jobs saved ("... teachers who kept their ... assignments and police officers who kept their beats" with "... jobs are being created that would not have been there before.").  Second, he fails to even claim (much less back up) that the stimulus plan is the best way to save or create jobs, and doesn't bother to look at the possibility that the jobs claimed as a victory by the White House may be unrelated to the stimulus dollars.  In other words, it's a lot of hot air (no offense intended to Ed Morrisey).

We've gone from millions of promised jobs to 600,000, and no one really knows how many jobs have been gained or retained.  The Wall Street Journal stated: 'Of course, the inability to measure Mr. Obama's jobs formula is part of its attraction. Never mind that no one -- not the Labor Department, not the Treasury, not the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- actually measures "jobs saved." As the New York Times delicately reports, Mr. Obama's jobs claims are "based on macroeconomic estimates, not an actual counting of jobs." Nice work if you can get away with it.'

Are 600,00 jobs worth $787 billion in stimulus (not to mention the budget expenditures)?  Is it worth it to the country to spend billions per job?  One would thinks that if we're willing to spend billions on 600,000 jobs, we'd be willing to spread that wealth around in tax cuts.

In one of the states hit hardest by the recession, Michigan, residents report that they see no effect from the $3.8 billion allocated to date.  Ditto for here in Florida.  Our dysfunctional sister, California, is unable to move or decide, and we're spending billions on fictional numbers.  Mr. Biden, there's just no getting around the fact that your team (and your boss) doesn't know the first thing about creating, saving or counting jobs.

11 June 2009

Co-Author of 'A Monetary History of the United States' Takes Stock

If you've never read the classic and important history of economics book, 'A Monetary History of the United States,' it's well-worth your time to pick it up and spend the summer reading it. The co-authors of this seminal work are Anna Schwartz and Milton Friedman (the Noble prize winner who famously advocated greed and free market forces).

Dr. Schwartz (who is a spry 93) has spent sixty years working for the National Bureau of Economic Research in New York. Like Milton Friedman, she is a numbers person - she's hell on data, and knows what she's talking about. Kai Ryssdal played an interview with her two days ago on Marketplace, specifically as relates to the TARP payouts and the actions of the Federal Reserve over the last year. Suffice it to say that she's deeply unhappy with the constant move to bailout banks and firms, and the White House moves to take control of private equity and management.

ANNA SCHWARTZ: "The Federal Reserve could easily have provided additional money supply. That would have helped the banks that were losing deposits and that would have helped the economy in general. ... I think both Bush and the Obama administration have not been as hard headed with banks, it has been too lax. And instead if they had said if you cannot raise capital in the market, there is no reason for the government, the people of this country, to provide capital."

Ryssdal: "OK, but wait a minute. Didn't we try that with Lehman Brothers last September? And there are people who will say that only made everything worse. Should we now say to Bank of America, and Citigroup and some of these other banks, "Hey, you can't make your loans..."

SCHWARTZ: "No, the trouble with the way the Fed operated when it rescued Bear Stearns, the market then believed this was a signal of the way the Federal Reserve would perform. If the Fed and the Treasury made a candid statement to the market: We will help a bank, which basically is solvent. We will not do that for a bank, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. And then the market understands there are principles. That's why when Lehman Brothers was permitted to fail, the market was simply bewildered. Because here you had treated Bear Stearns in this kindly fashion, and what reason was there not to do the same when Lehman Brothers arose? ... The market is just bewildered. Bernanke came into office insisting that the Fed would be much more transparent than it had been in the past. But I don't believe that it's lived up to that. If the market understood what the Fed was planning in each case, and could see a design, then I think the market would have reacted much more positively. ... No, and I think the big shortcoming of the Obama administration, and Bush before that, was that it didn't make a concerted effort to get rid of these assets. I mean in a sense it's a condemnation of the Federal Reserve. They did not respond to securitization, which is the basic condition for the creation of these toxic assets. Neither Alan Greenspan or anybody else at the Fed seemed to be concerned."

This discussion fell in line with a Wall Street Journal article from last years (Aug. 9, 2007) by Brian Carney entitled, 'Bernanke is Fighting the Last War.' Carney interviewed Dr. Schwartz:

'In the 1930s, as Ms. Schwartz and Mr. Friedman argued in "A Monetary History," the country and the Federal Reserve were faced with a liquidity crisis in the banking sector. As banks failed, depositors became alarmed that they'd lose their money if their bank, too, failed. So bank runs began, and these became self-reinforcing: "If the borrowers hadn't withdrawn cash, they [the banks] would have been in good shape. But the Fed just sat by and did nothing, so bank after bank failed. And that only motivated depositors to withdraw funds from banks that were not in distress," deepening the crisis and causing still more failures. But "that's not what's going on in the market now," Ms. Schwartz says. Today, the banks have a problem on the asset side of their ledgers -- "all these exotic securities that the market does not know how to value." "Why are they 'toxic'?" Ms. Schwartz asks. "They're toxic because you cannot sell them, you don't know what they're worth, your balance sheet is not credible and the whole market freezes up. We don't know whom to lend to because we don't know who is sound. So if you could get rid of them, that would be an improvement." The only way to "get rid of them" is to sell them, which is why Ms. Schwartz thought that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's original proposal to buy these assets from the banks was "a step in the right direction." .... Ms. Schwartz doesn't buy it. "It's very easy when you're a market participant," she notes with a smile, "to claim that you shouldn't shut down a firm that's in really bad straits because everybody else who has lent to it will be injured. Well, if they lent to a firm that they knew was pretty rocky, that's their responsibility. And if they have to be denied repayment of their loans, well, they wished it on themselves. The [government] doesn't have to save them, just as it didn't save the stockholders and the employees of Bear Stearns. Why should they be worried about the creditors? Creditors are no more worthy of being rescued than ordinary people, who are really innocent of what's been going on." It takes real guts to let a large, powerful institution go down. But the alternative -- the current credit freeze -- is worse, Ms. Schwartz argues. "I think if you have some principles and know what you're doing, the market responds. They see that you have some structure to your actions, that it isn't just ad hoc -- you'll do this today but you'll do something different tomorrow. And the market respects people in supervisory positions who seem to be on top of what's going on. So I think if you're tough about firms that have invested unwisely, the market won't blame you. They'll say, 'Well, yeah, it's your fault. You did this. Nobody else told you to do it. Why should we be saving you at this point if you're stuck with assets you can't sell and liabilities you can't pay off?'" But when the authorities finally got around to letting Lehman Brothers fail, it had saved so many others already that the markets didn't know how to react. Instead of looking principled, the authorities looked erratic and inconstant.'

When this lady speaks, we should all be listening closely. The interview and article tied in nicely with another Marketplace report about the TARP program and the difficulty some institutions are having in convincing the government to allow a rapid loan repayment.

Kai Ryssdal: "Recall though that back in October then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson met with the CEOs of nine of this country's biggest banks. He told them in no uncertain terms that they had to take the TARP money to save the whole financial system. So they did. Only to learn later that the money came with strings attached. So the race has been on to give that bailout back. Today 10 big banks got permission to do that. Almost two dozen smaller ones have already. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was in the room with Paulson and the CEO's back in October, today called those repayments an encouraging sign of financial repair. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports."

"But William Isaac at the financial consulting firm LECG Global says the banks that are returning the TARP money never needed it, and it didn't do them any good. ... The banks that got permission to payback the bailout performed well on those government-run stress tests. But the Congressional overseer of the bailout, Elizabeth Warren, today questioned whether the stress tests were stressful enough. For example, she said, the tests assumed an 8.9-percent unemployment rate. And last month, unemployment was 9.4 percent."

It seems we're going to be in for a long period of poor decision-making on the part of the White House and the Federal Reserve, and it sure seems to smack of a power grab when decision-makers ignore all common sense and the advice and warnings of some of the most experienced people out there to proceed with a plan. Models are fabulous things, but when they're not tested by real-world data (or when they fail tests), they can not be used reliably. The government seems to be bent on using a set of models that are untested, and on making crucial economic decisions based on those models. If it continues down this path, we're going to lengthen the credit freeze, devalue the currency to absurd levels, and create debt that will take decades to dig ourselves out of.

09 June 2009

Obama Proposes Pay as You Go???

President Obama - you know, the man whose stimulus package and budget combined are going to increase the nation's debt and deficit (yes, both) beyond anything we've ever seen in our nation's history - now says that we should make 'pay as you go' the law of the land.  'The so-called PAYGO proposal requires Congress to balance any increased spending by equal savings elsewhere, Obama said in announcing the measure that now goes to Congress.'

Excuse me while I find my rear end.  I just lost it laughing. ... Now that I've taken care of that, look at the projections from the Congressional Budget Office.  Any thoughts as to where we're really headed?

The North Korean Fog

The fog of confusion surrounding North Korea's actions thickened over the previous week, beginning with the show trial of the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee.  The North Korean court (wholly government-controlled) sentenced the two women to twelve years in a forced-labor camp for unspecified 'hostile acts,' which apparently included straying over the border into North Korea itself.  These camps have been documented in the past, and include the kind of conditions found in the worst of the old Soviet gulag system.  Speculation is rampant among the talking heads that the women won't actually be sent to a camp, as long as the North Koreans feel they can use the two as a bargaining chip to exact concessions from the US.  Interestingly, the journalists were there to report on the growing cross-border trafficking in female sex slaves by the North Korean government.  (I say growing because several family members and friends are involved in trying to liberate women and children who are trafficked, and have been documenting the growing influence of the North Koreans in this vile trade.  If you're interested in an in-depth examination of this issue, check out the book Terrify No More (Gary Haugen and Gregg Hunter)).

Last month's test of a nuclear weapon, and the ongoing missile tests, have dramatically upped the tension over North Korea's intentions and objectives.  Speculation here in the US has centered around the possibility that President Obama will have his hand forced, and will back down from cutting the missile defense program (particularly in Alaska), and if we will begin intedicting North Korean vessels.  Yesterday, the Korean Central News Agency declared that North Korea would take such an interdiction as an act of war, and would consider a nuclear retaliation.  Presumably, this threat is directed against Seoul, which has recently backed the idea of ship inspections.  Simultaneously, North Korea is preparing for a test of its long-range missile, and two medium-range missiles.  Finally, while Kim Jong-Il may want his youngest son (Kim Jong-un) to be his succesor as the 'Dear Leader,' it's far from clear that the military and governmental apparatus will accept this appointment or will let Jong-un rule as completely as his father and grandfather.

One thing is clear: we don't know what North Korea wants or how it will act.

06 June 2009

Normandy - 65 Years Ago

Sixty-five years ago today, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke the following words in his orders sending 100,000 troops into harm's way to liberate Germany:
"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!

Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."

You can find US Army video, pictures and remembrances here. There's nothing I can add to these - they speak for themselves. God bless all who sacrificed all for the world, and may we never forget them.


04 June 2009

David Carradine Found Hanged

I almost never post more than once a day, and usually just several times a week, but I found this heartbreaking and so sad. David Carradine (for those of you too young to remember, he was the star of the Kung Fu t.v. series in the 70s) was found dead, hanging from a noose in the closet of a Bangkok hotel. His family and friends insist that he would not have committed suicide; I certainly (fervently) hope that is true. He was a wonderful actor, and his character of 'Grasshopper' made an indelible impression on me.

Rest in Peace, Grasshopper.

Bernake: The Newly-Hatched Deficit Hawk

Yesterday's 'Marketplace,' with the inestimable Kai Ryssdal, asked the question, 'Why is Bernanke a deficit hawk now?' It's a perfect question. The opening paragraphs set the stage:
'When Ben Bernanke decides to make news, he doesn't really pull any punches, does he? The chairman of the Federal Reserve was on Capitol Hill today. And he used his moment in the spotlight to warn Congress about the growing budget deficit. Washington is going to shell out almost $2 trillion more than it takes in this year. Of course all that spending was meant to rescue the U.S. economy from disaster. And there are signs that some of the money may be doing what it was supposed to do. So this morning's pronouncements by the Fed chairman prompt this question: Why's he such a deficit hawk now?'
Bernanke is now trying to control the costs of borrowing? Why? Congress is having such a great time spending. Why rain on their parade a year later? Enjoy reading.

03 June 2009

North Korea Prepping Two Additional Missile Tests

North Korea is apparently preparing to launch two new missile tests, one of a mid-range missile, and the second of it's long range missile (technically capable of reaching the US, but they've had repeated difficulties even getting the missile to reach apogee) from their western border at Dongchang-ri. Additionally: 'The reclusive communist country was showing other signs of belligerence. Reports say that over the past several days, the North has strengthened its defenses and conducted amphibious assault exercises along its western shore that could be preparations for skirmishes at sea.' Both South and North Korea have been anteing-up lately, with increase drills as well as a heating up of the rhetoric (the latter primarily on the North Korean side). South Korea and Japan now seem open to search and seizure operations of North Korean vessels suspected of carrying nuclear material or components necessary for processing of material, and North Korea appears to be deliberately provoking instability.

The AP reports that Susan Rice (the US envoy to the UN) claims: 'At the United Nations, US envoy Susan Rice said there had been movement in talks with her counterparts from Britain, China, France, Russia, Japan and South Korea when they met Monday to thrash out a draft resolution imposing tougher sanctions on the isolated regime.' However, the NYT reports that Russia and China are seeking delay the implementation of further sanctions. 'The United States circulated a softened draft resolution to the Security Council in response to North Korea’s assertion that it conducted a nuclear test on Monday. The United States pressed for a vote by Friday, but China and Russia immediately signaled their opposition to critical parts of the measure and said they needed more time. On Thursday night, a new draft resolution was circulated, and Reuters quoted the Chinese and Russian ambassadors calling the revisions improvements.' This all comes in the context of Kim Jong-Il's apparent appointment of his son, Kim Jong-un, as successor (discussed in yesterday's blog), and the move to try two US journalists for espionage.

Whatever the outcome of the action at the UN (I continue to doubt that body capable of much if any action), it's clear that Kim Jong-Il wants to ensure that he is receiving attention and is feared, in his own country and region and abroad.

02 June 2009

The New Dear Leader?

The BBC and several other media sources are reporting that Kim Jong-Il has chosen his successor. And the winner is ... Kim Jong-un. This is his youngest son, and reportedly the one who most resembles his father. Kim Jong-un is relatively young, and speculation revolves around the possibility that the nuclear and subsequent missile tests of the last two weeks stems from Jong-Il's attempt to secure power and homage for his son in a culture that traditionally respects age and seniority. Reported changes in senior positions may provide evidence for that hypothesis.

Time Magazine published this fascinating little interview with Kim Jong-Il's former sister-in-law, Sung Hae Rang, who fled North Korea, and lives in an undisclosed location fearful of reprisals. The interview provides a glimpse of the total insularity and sense of divinity with which Kim Jong-un has been raised. The Telegraph has a short profile comprised of short tidbits about the 'Prince,' but in truth very little is known about the new 'Dear Leader-in-waiting.'
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